Thursday, September 10, 2009

Steve Fielding’s demons

Family First (FF) federal senator Steve Fielding used the News Ltd soapbox of The Punch today to discuss his demon of lifelong “specific learning disability”. Fielding said the disability affected his ability to spell and speak in public but denied it made him unsuitable for parliament. He said he spoke out because “the issue of learning disabilities is a serious one” but gave no statement why he didn’t consider the issue important enough to reveal anytime during the last four years (picture credit: ABC TV).

The Victorian senator was forced to make the announcement of his supposed learning disability after his apparent gaffe-ridden doorstop yesterday which was ridden with pronunciation and spelling errors. I say “supposed” because neither his subsequent admission nor his Punch piece elaborated on what exactly his specific learning disability is (as Crikey’s Bernard Keane pointed out today it “unfortunately remained specifically unspecified”). And I say “apparent”, because I am not convinced these mistakes weren’t deliberate. It is entirely possible the mistakes and admission may have been a deliberate part of his re-election strategy.

But Fielding will need a lot more than sympathy about disabilities to be part of the next parliament. As Andrew Elder said earlier this year “Fielding was elected to Federal Parliament by factional deals first, and a tiny proportion of the good people second”. In the 2004 half Senate election, FF got 56,376 Victorian votes which amounted to just 0.13 of a quota. This tiny number put them in sixth place behind the DLP and the Democrats. The third placed Greens outvoted them by five to one. Yet it was somehow enough for Fielding to get over the line.

Prior to the 2004 election, Labor did a preference deal with FF aimed at electing its third candidate Jacinta Collins ahead of the Greens candidate. But it backfired badly when Labor and Democrat votes were well down on expectations. After 280 counts, Fielding sneaked ahead of Collins which meant the preference was reversed and he took the final seat from the Greens. With the Coalition winning an outright Senate majority in that election, the full folly of Labor’s deal would not be revealed until the balance of power changed in the 2007 election. In his maiden speech in 2005, Fielding castigated the “age of self: self-interest, self-fulfilment and self-promotion.” But once established in parliament, he showed he too wasn’t beyond a bit of self-promotion.

With several Coalition senators prepared to cross the floor, his vote was vital to the Howard Government’s bills on Voluntary Student Unionism, relaxed media ownership laws, and overturning the ACT’s civil unions legislation. But it was the 2007 election result that made him a serious player. Labor now needed every non-Coalition vote to pass Senate legislation. Suddenly in a position of real power, Fielding clambered down from the high moral ground and became a grubby dealmaker. He now stands as a major stumbling block to any early adoption of carbon trading initiatives and claims his visit to Washington in June to meet climate change sceptics was prompted by a desire of "picking up the fight for the underdog".

Fielding’s grasp of science subsequently proved to be more dodgy than underdog, as science writer Deltoid and others effortlessly skewered. Yet the charade was a victory of sorts for the Victorian senator who kept his photo in the paper throughout. While no one is exactly sure what Family First actually stands for these days, Fielding has managed to keep his public profile high with a series of camera-friendly stunts such as taking his shirt off in support of pension increases and dressing up as a beer bottle to promote a national bottle recycling refund scheme.

With another election looming in 2010 is it possible he could be re-elected? Though Labor could support him again as a more manageable tool than the Greens, the general consensus is that the original deal caused such a stink within the party that it is unlikely to be repeated. There was no deal in 2007 and FF sunk without trace despite improving their primary vote to 0.17 quotas (ironically enough of their vote leaked across the line to help Labor win the last seat ahead of the Greens). Fielding’s only chance is to rely on factors such as personal appeal, a sympathy vote and name recognition to put him within reach of a quota and hope deals with smaller parties will put him over the line. His physical F-I-S-K-A-L strategy (which he quickly corrected) and the subsequent outing of his “learning disability” may simply be an act. As we get closer and closer to election time, it is increasingly likely the only underdog Fielding will be picking a fight for is himself.

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